(Chris Jones’s article appeared in the Chicago Tribune, 1/30. The video clip, starring Watkins, refers to a previous production of the show.)
Of all Harry Houdini's great feats of daring, none thrilled audiences as much as the Chinese Water Torture Cell, a transparent, fish tank-like device filled with gallons of water into which the favorite son of Appleton, Wisc., would be lowered, head first. The cover would be padlocked after the great escapologist held his breath and, with manacles around his feet, took what seemed to be a fatal dive.
Even several minutes into the trick, audiences would be able to steal a view of the submerged Houdini, still under water and beginning to turn blue.
The House Theatre's riveting "Death and Harry Houdini," which opened Sunday night at the Chopin Theatre, ends with a detailed re-creation of that very trick, performed by Dennis Watkins, a local actor and magician with an obsessive interest in Houdini and a man who has closely studied his greatest illusions and learned how to do them in homage to the master. But Houdini did that trick mostly in big, proscenium theaters. Watkins does it in sufficiently close proximity that the front rows can feel the splashes.